Ariel Goldschmidt, a Conservative Jew raised in Squirrel Hill, stood over what resembled human remains a few days ago in an Abu Kabir Forensic Institute exam room in Tel Aviv and tried to stay composed.
By that point, the deputy Allegheny County medical examiner had been volunteering for several days in Israel following Hamas terrorists’ gruesome attack on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7.
He was used to identifying bodies — and he had some horror stories — but it never resembled the work at Abu Kabir, Israel’s only forensic lab providing autopsies for unnatural deaths.
Unable to rely on dental records or fingerprints, Goldschmidt scoured countless bodies for tattoos, remnants of medical devices, scars, any clues to help shed light on the 400 individuals — out of an estimated 1,400 killed — whom Israeli officials weren’t able to identify.
“It’s not really what I’m used to,” he said. “The bodies, many of them were burned. The ones that weren’t burned were decomposed.
“Obviously, it was difficult,” Goldschmidt added. “It was also not just work. It was helping to document any and every crime. Unfortunately, that’s part of being a Jew.”
Most of the victims appeared to succumb to gunshot wounds, Goldschmidt said, but some were killed by shrapnel from nearby explosions. One or two had been tortured, tied up and stabbed or shot at close range. Some bodies came in pieces — one from a wheelchair lift. The children were processed first.
“That, obviously, was still difficult,” said Goldschmidt, a father of three.
The Israeli group, whose international rescue unit is based in Jerusalem, has assisted first responders in identifying victims of terrorism and other disasters for decades. Its members, many of them Orthodox Jews, gather body parts and spilled blood to ensure proper Jewish burial.
But, even ZAKA’s leadership sounded alarmed after Oct. 7.
“We are witnessing difficult sights that we have never seen before,” said ZAKA’s CEO Duby Weissenstern on the group’s website. “Even the veteran ZAKA volunteers who are working on the scenes are struggling to digest the sights and the magnitude of the disaster.”
Goldschmidt didn’t know what to expect.
Shortly after the Oct. 7 massacres, he received a bulk email from the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), a Missouri-based trade group for forensic pathologists and medicolegal death investigators.
They were seeking volunteers to take an El Al flight — the only airline entering or exiting the country — to Tel Aviv and help identify the dead.
“[Ariel] read the email and said, ‘Should I go?’” said his wife, Andrea Goldschmidt, a clinical psychologist and University of Pittsburgh researcher who examines eating and weight disorders in children. “I said, ‘Yeah! We’re sitting over here, worrying and fretting. And you could go over and do something.’”
Ariel Goldschmidt, a dual U.S.-Israel citizen who speaks fluent Hebrew, was one of four professionals NAME selected. Two had worked in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at Ground Zero; a third had volunteered in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, decimated the island in 2017.
“I’ve never felt nervous for him to be in Israel, but this all felt very unpredictable,” Andrea Goldschmidt told the Chronicle. “You’re flying a huge plane with a big Star of David on it, and [terrorists] are launching rockets at the airport.”
The Goldschmidt family spoke constantly via What’s App, though Andrea Goldschmidt said her youngest child didn’t quite understand the weight of what was unfolding nearly 6,000 miles away.
“Is Daddy coming home?” the youngest would ask. “Is he on vacation?”
The parents asked their oldest son — she prefers to keep their names and ages private — to stay off social media, especially while his father was away.
Andrea Goldschmidt took to Facebook and email to spread her husband’s story. Her mother-in-law, who attends services at Congregation Beth Shalom, was surprised; Ariel, after all, is a modest, even quiet, man.
“People should know that there are people making sacrifices to go over and help,” Andrea Goldschmidt said. “I tell my kids, ‘When terrible things happen, I want you to know there are people working to do good.’
“I want them to be proud of Ariel — I’m proud of him,” she said.
Ariel Goldschmidt previously worked as a medical examiner in several U.S. cities, from St. Louis to Chicago to Providence, Rhode Island; his curriculum vitae boasts nearly 20 years of forensic experience. Though little prepared him for his work in Israel, he feels fortunate to work alongside and learn from a tremendously talented group of volunteers.
Like many, the medical examiners had the Israeli TV news blaring in the background at all hours — “everyone was waiting to find out what was happening next,” Ariel Goldschmidt said. On more than one occasion, they all stopped their work to run into the aging institute’s mamad, or safe room, when sirens shrieked.
On Wednesday, though, Goldschmidt went back to work in the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office in Downtown Pittsburgh. He couldn’t take off a day to rest or transition — he had used all his PTO and taken several unpaid days to volunteer in Israel.
“I really appreciate the county allowing me to do this,” said Goldschmidt, in a phone call before boarding a 1 a.m. flight Tuesday into Newark Liberty International Airport near New York City.
“But, definitely, I’m glad to be going home.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.